Teach for America fights for direct funding


Teach for America, a popular program for college graduates, is in danger of losing its direct federal funding due to a proposal before Congress.

The proposal, which falls under a revised version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would not guarantee money to any particular group. It would require TFA – a national program that places college graduates in teaching positions at high-need K-12 schools – and other similar organizations to compete for $235 million in grants.

Overall, 140 University of Minnesota students have participated in the program or are currently participating. Political science and history major Alex Tenenbaum was accepted and will teach for the program this fall.

“I can’t see myself being a permanent teacher,” Tenenbaum said, “so [TFA] is a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone into a totally different culture and make a difference for those two years.”

TFA participants make a two-year commitment to teach in one of 35 different urban or rural areas nationally, said Aneesha Sethi, campus campaign coordinator for TFA at the University. Participants don’t have to be education majors, she said, and they go through a five-week “boot camp” before placement.

This year, 225 students from the University applied to join TFA, up 38 percent from last year, Kaitlin Gastrock, spokeswoman for TFA, said.

Nationally, the program has seen record numbers of both applicants and schools requesting TFA teachers this year.

“Recruitment numbers have been skyrocketing,” Sethi said. “People see the program as a prestigious and noble thing, and it’s getting really competitive to get into.”

TFA asked Congress for $50 million for fiscal year 2011, up from the $21 million it received this year. The increase in requested funding was to help with TFA’s planned expansion, which includes doubling the number of schools it serves within the next five years, Gastrock said.

TFA, which added the University to its program in June 2009, has received federal funding every year since its inception in 1990.

The proposed program before Congress could make it possible for TFA to get at least, if not more than, its requested $50 million because the grants will be awarded to high-performing programs, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press release.

TFA would likely be able to get funding from the grant program, but the concern is more about uncertainty, said Daniel Sellers, executive director of TFA in the Twin Cities.

“The issue is actually about timing,” Sellers said. “We weren’t aware when we began the fiscal year that we were going to have to compete for funding, and for a company as large and expansive as ours, it’s difficult to plan without a sense of how much money we’ll have.”

Sellers said TFA has been encouraging program alumni, lawmakers, communities with TFA participants in addition to corporate and individual donors to ask the federal government to fund TFA.

“We’re really trying to rally support, because Teach for America has a lot of stakeholders,” Sellers said. “We’re trying to get support anywhere and everywhere we can get it.”

A total of 86 representatives and senators, all Democrats except for one, have expressed written support for direct funding to TFA, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

“At the end of the day, we have to invest in education,” Ellison said. “Teach for America is helping us to eliminate inequity by getting our nation’s most promising young leaders on the case.”